WASHINGTON – In its most sweeping policy proposal yet to address climate change, the Obama administration Monday called for a 30 percent reduction in carbon emissions from existing electric power plants by 2030, with even more required of coal-dependent states like Tennessee.
Tennessee Valley Authority officials said they were still evaluating the new regulations and it was too early to gauge the impact on customer bills. They also pointed to major reductions in carbon emissions achieved already.
"The devil may be in the details with these rules," said authority spokesman Duncan Mansfield.
EPA said Tennessee's plants produced 1,903 pounds of carbon pollution per megawatt hour of electricity in 2012. It wants that down to 1,163 pounds per megawatt hour by 2030.
That would be a 39 percent reduction.
Each state will have the flexibility to devise its own plan for meeting the assigned numbers. The EPA said it took into account each state's energy mix before setting limits on carbon pollution, regarded as a leading cause of global warming.
"Climate change, fueled by carbon pollution, supercharges risks to our health, our economy, and our way of life," said Gina McCarthy, EPA administrator.
The much-anticipated announcement was widely praised by environmental groups as setting an example for the world to follow, one that would lead to new investment and lowere energy costs for ratepayers.
But many business groups and conservatives denounced it as the imposition of a "national energy tax" on an already-struggling American economy and said it would cost jobs.
In the coming months, the federal agency will be taking comments from interested parties — especially utilities and environmental groups — with the rules not due to be implemented until 2015 and with states having until 2016 to comply.
"The new safeguards not only protect our health and communities, but they will also spur innovation and strengthen our economy. By moving to 100 percent clean energy sources, we'll create tens of thousands of American jobs and billions of dollars in new investment," said Scott Banbury of the Tennessee Sierra Club.
Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Nashville, said EPA acted "because Congress failed to."
"I haven't seen the new regulation yet, but I am hopeful it will insure against any more harm to the planet. Every nation needs to join our effort," Cooper said.
But congressional Republicans and business advocates had a different take.
"Today's regulations issued by EPA add immense cost and regulatory burdens on America's job creators. They will have a profound effect on the economy, on businesses, and on families," said Thomas J. Donohue, president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Brentwood, vice chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said the regulations were a continuation of "the Obama administration's war on coal."
"This rule is another tax on the American taxpayers and will lead to higher electricity rates and fees," she said in a statement.
Assessing where Tennessee and TVA stand in regard to the new rule will require separating environmental data for the state from system-wide data for the federal power authority, which serves six other Southeastern states and nine million customers overall.
In 2012, TVA ranked 5th in carbon emissions among the 100 largest electric utilities, according to Ceres, an advocacy group for sustainable energy, releasing 77.35 million tons of carbon dioxide.
Tennessee as a state, however, ranked 21st highest, emitting 41.9 million tons in 2012.
TVA reports that its system-wide total is already down 30 percent since 2005 and that it already had a goal of reducing it 40 percent by 2020.
For just Tennessee electric power plants — and not emissions from sources such as transportation — EPA figures show 39.44 million tons of carbon emissions in 2011, down from 54.8 million tons in 2005.
"So we are off to a good start," said Bill Johnson, TVA president and chief executive officer.
Part of the reductions that already have occurred are due to decreased demand caused by an economic slowdown and a move to cleaner fuels like natural gas to generate power.
While the Supreme Court has made it clear that the EPA has the authority to issue such rules, a political backlash could prompt Congress to change federal environmental law. Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Senate Republican leader, has already vowed to introduce legislation to stop the new regulations.
TVA Plants in Tennessee
• Kingston in Roane County.
• Bull Run in Anderson County.
• Gallatin in Sumner County.
• Johnsonville in Humphreys County.
• Allen in Shelby County.
• Cumberland in Humphreys County.
• John Sevier (a 4-unit plant with two idled units and two retired units) is in Hawkins County.
Tennessee TVA customers and costs in other states
If the Tennessee Valley Authority has to take new steps to cut carbon emissions in the other states it serves, Tennessee customers may have to help pay for them.
"Potentially yes. TVA charges the same base electric rate to all local power companies to recover the operating costs of the TVA system," said spokesman Duncan Mansfield.
"That is the basis of TVA's non-profit model. No distinction is made for where the costs occur or where the local power company is located. Local power companies then pass on those TVA power charges to consumers."
The federal power authority also serves parts of Mississippi, Kentucky, Alabama, Georgia, Virginia and North Carolina.